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Podcast: How to Manage Teacher Burnout with Amber Harper

  • 30 MIN READ

Join us for episode 4 of our podcast, where we discuss how to manage teacher burnout with Amber Harper.

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Welcome to Episode 4 of Teach & Learn: A podcast for curious educators, brought to you by D2L. Hosted by Dr. Cristi Ford, VP of Academic Affairs at D2L, the show features candid conversations with some of the sharpest minds in the K-20 education space. We discuss trending educational topics, teaching strategies and delve into the issues plaguing our schools and higher education institutions today.

Episode Description:

Burnout. We all know it exists, but just how bad is it amongst educators? Well, according to a 2022 Gallup poll, K-12 teachers in the United States experienced the highest levels of burnout out of every other industry surveyed. When you take a global pandemic, throw in emergency remote teaching and pair it with educational cuts and historically low salaries, it’s no wonder those in the educational space are struggling. 

But what can we do about it? To discuss this topic further, we welcomed Amber Harper. Amber is an educator, Google-certified trainer, author and the founder of Burned-In Teacher, a community she created to help teachers overcome burnout. Amber and Dr. Ford discussed:

  • What burnout is
  • The three main reasons burnout occurs
  • What administrators and school districts can do to better support education workers
  • How teachers can take back control of their careers

Show Notes:

01:52: Amber shares why burnout is different for every teacher and the three main reasons why it happens.

06:19: Amber discusses a bit of her own teaching background and her experiences with burnout.

10:39: How burnout is different now than it was before the pandemic.

14:48: How teachers can be better prepared if burnout hits.

21:42: What Amber did when she reached a tipping point in her teaching career.

28:42: Why Amber decided to go back to the classroom.

33:01: Advice for teachers struggling with burnout.

40:36: What’s next for Amber.

Resources Discussed in the Episode:

Check out Amber’s community, Burned-In Teacher

Buy Amber’s book, Hacking Teacher Burnout

Listen to The Burned-In Teacher Podcast

Check out D2L’s resources on managing teacher and educator burnout

Learn more about Amber

Learn more about Dr. Cristi Ford and the Teaching and Learning Studio.

About the Speakers:

Amber Harper is an educator, author, Google Certified Trainer, and Teacher Burnout Coach. She’s the founder of Burned-In Teacher and author of Hacking Teacher Burnout which empowers burned-out teachers to believe that they deserve and can achieve a happier and more fulfilled career and life with her 8-step BURNED-IN process.

Amber hosts a weekly podcast dedicated to action, inspiration, and support for teachers dealing with teacher burnout called The Burned-In Teacher Podcast.

Dr. Cristi Ford serves as the Vice President of Academic Affairs at D2L. She brings more than 20 years of cumulative experience in higher education, secondary education, project management, program evaluation, training and student services to her role. Dr. Ford holds a PhD in Educational Leadership from the University of Missouri-Columbia and undergraduate and graduate degrees in the field of Psychology from Hampton University and University of Baltimore, respectively.

Subscribe to the Teach & Learn Podcast:

Teach & Learn is a podcast for curious educators created by D2L, a global education and learning company. Make sure you subscribe for the latest episodes: https://open.spotify.com/show/5Aoo7Dqm4ePEnXmY4xjk3j

Full Transcript:

Dr. Cristi Ford (00:00):

Welcome to Teach and Learn, a podcast for curious educators brought to you by D2L. I’m your host, Dr. Christie Ford, VP of Academic Affairs at D2L. Every two weeks I get candid with some of the sharpest minds in the K-20 space. We break down trending educational topics, discuss teaching strategies, and have frank conversations about the issues plaguing our schools and higher education institutions today. Whether it’s ed tech, personalized learning, virtual classrooms, or diversity inclusion, we’re going to cover it all. Sharpen your pencils. Class is about to begin.

Hi, Amber. Thanks for being willing to chat with us today. We are really excited about the conversation to talk with you about a really important topic around teacher burnout.

Amber Harper (00:51):

Thank you so much for having me.

Dr. Cristi Ford (00:54):

Absolutely. So listeners, let me just give you a little background around Amber before we jump right in, because I think that she’s going to have such great expertise and perspective to offer that will be helpful in any realm as we’re talking around this issue. Amber Harper is an educator, author, Google-certified trainer and teacher burnout coach.

Amber, I’m looking forward to digging in and learning more about being a teacher burnout coach.

But she’s also the founder of burnedinteacher.com and author of Hacking Teacher Burnout, which empowers burned out teachers to believe that they deserve and can achieve happier and more fulfilled careers in life with her eight-step burned in process.

Amber, thanks again for joining us today. I really want to start out by just setting some context around what is teacher burnout? What do we mean? How does that resonate with you, and what can you share with us as your listeners around that?

Amber Harper (01:53):

First of all, burnout is really deeply personal. Nobody experiences it the same way. Nobody experiences it because of the same reasons. And as I’ve experienced it many times for many different reasons, and I’m sure many of the listeners can also agree, each time it can feel different as well, so it’s really hard to know how to navigate through it.

But what I do know for certain is that burnout can occur for three main reasons, and when I say these to you, you’re going to know exactly what we’re talking about, how this occurs in education. So number one, burnout can occur because of lack of personal achievement. You get your bachelor’s in education, you become a teacher. And even if you get your master’s, you may not get a pay raise, and you’re still a teacher.

And for some people, that’s enough. That’s fine with them. But for other people, if they’re moving the goal post, if they really appreciate seeing that personal achievement and that professional growth, that might not be enough for them.

The next big reason is the depersonalization that can happen in one’s workplace, and we all know how depersonalized education becomes when we start looking at students as numbers rather than human beings. And for most teachers, when you ask them why they got into teaching, it was to make a difference in children’s lives. It was to make an impact.

And when we are consistently just having numbers thrown in our faces, data, we lose sight of the person behind the data.

And then the last and one of the biggest reasons is that emotional exhaustion that we feel.

It takes more than knowing how to write a good lesson plan to be a good teacher. It takes up your emotions. You give of yourself and your emotions and of your capacity to feel. You feel for these children. You feel for other teachers that you’re working with. You see them having hardship, and you want to help. It’s not as easy for some people to leave that stuff in the classroom or in the school when you walk away from it. It wears on you.

And for many teachers, they’re dealing with all three of these things at the same time so you can imagine how extremely difficult it is when you get stuck in the cycle of burnout to get out of it.

Dr. Cristi Ford (04:30):

So Amber, I really resonate with that last point. I think about my time in K-12, working in level five non-public high school, and all of my kiddos had some sort of disability.

And you’re right, I would take that home with me. I would think about the students and their families. It was really a personal passion for me in terms of thinking about how I could have impact. As you mentioned earlier, it’s really critical. All the teachers I know in my life got into education because they were passionate about making a difference. And so I really appreciate that framing there because I think that’s the piece that we sometimes don’t understand, what is the root cause around burnout?

So hearing you talk about the lack of personal achievement, the deep personalization of learning.

I’ve been really surprised as I see the headlines, you and I have both seen them, around the mass exodus of teachers and teacher education. And even in some states like Arizona, recently I was working with some colleagues there, around the changes in qualifications for teachers.

So when you talk about that piece of getting a master’s degree, but we’re finding that some teachers are coming into the school system and aren’t even credentialed to be working with our youngsters.

It’s no wonder that the burnout is happening and we’re seeing it. But as you talk about that root cause, I guess I want to understand, what can we do about it? I think that when we talk about change and we think about either institutional change or administration change, what can we do to really mitigate some of these issues that we’re seeing in the headlines that are causing teachers to leave the profession?

Amber Harper (06:19):

This is a really loaded question because it really comes down to that individual teacher and what they specifically feel like they need.

And when you’re a teacher who is struggling and that proverbial keeping your head above water, you’re drowning, you’re surviving. You don’t even, at some point, know what you need, and that’s why a lot of teachers, in my experience and with the conversations that I’ve had with teachers who have left, their choice is just to leave because they don’t even know what would help them.

That’s where I come in and where this is where my journey really started was back in 2014. I was just reeling. I was just allowing all of the challenges I was seeing happening in our system of education in our country in our state; I teach in Indiana. I was letting that get to me. I was letting things that were happening in my district and in my own school with our administration. That was weighing on me.

And then I was seeing things happening within my team and our students in our grade level, I was teaching third grade at that time, seeing things happen. And it was a lot to try to process at one time.

And for a lot of teachers, we are self-proclaimed, perfectionist, control freak people… [inaudible 00:07:40]. We want to fix everything. Again, we came here to make an impact, and if that means I have to fix everything, I will back out.

And when you’re someone who’s also an overachiever and you want to be the best and you want to do the best, whatever that means for you in your own life, this is where it becomes so dangerous to people’s professions, whether it’s in education or not because when you don’t know what to do and you’re having the same conversations every single day, you really do become defeated and you become what I consider burned and over it. You just, “What’s even the point of me even being here?”

I have to say that first before I go into what is it that we can do about it. And I think the number one thing, and this is actually one of the first steps in my process, is really determining what your specific triggers are and what has brought you to this point. And if right now you’re feeling like it’s everything, it’s really then starting to focus on, “Well what are my core values? What is really important to me?” And this is going to go far beyond remembering your why. A lot of times teachers are told, “Remember your why.”

Well that can be used to help us remember why we became a teacher, but it can also be used against us if you’re talking to the wrong person, because then they’re going to say, “Well, remember your why when you’re working 70 hours a week. The kids are worth it.”

And that’s also dangerous, because you put yourself in that position where it’s like, “Well, if I don’t work 70 hours a week, am I a good teacher?”

I really help teachers, and I hope that other teachers out there who are listening understand that change in your life, change in your classroom is going to begin and end with you, really focusing first on what is the most valuable to you, what your core values are, what’s most important to you, realizing how you got to this place and remembering who you are there for.

I teach kindergarten, I go to school to work with my kindergartners. That is my job title, kindergarten teacher. But I could easily find myself also being part of the literacy committee. And I could be working for our literacy curriculum, and I could be part of this sunshine committee, and I could be part of this committee over here and the leadership team. And then all of a sudden, rather than me being at school for my kindergartners, I am at school for all of these other reasons as well.

It really starts with being self-reflective and becoming really clear on your why for teaching, but also your why for continuing to teach if you choose to stay in the profession and thinking about how teaching can also serve you as well.

Dr. Cristi Ford (10:39):

I love that framing and you giving us a sneak peek into that eight-step process.

I wonder, Amber, as you think about your time as a teacher burnout coach, what do you see that’s changed? I think about teacher burnout pre-pandemic and teacher burnout now in the midst of a great resignation and all the other things happening.

What have you noticed when you’re working with teachers that’s different now than before the pandemic hit?

Amber Harper (11:13):

I have to be quite honest, burnout was a problem before the pandemic. There was also a sharp decline in the amount of people going to school to become teachers. There was already a sharp decline. There was already a resignation crisis. There were already teachers… I left teaching in the middle of the year because I was burned out in 2015. This was pre pandemic.

I think all of that the pandemic did, all that COVID did was exacerbate a problem that was already there. What is huge is I think that it really showed in so many different ways how disrespected teachers are, how incredibly hard our job is, and how little credit we get for doing what we do and dealing with what we deal with on a daily basis.

And people, we had this heightened awareness about how hard it was. Whenever parents were teaching their kids, and when kids were learning from home, we had this great sense of gratitude. But then we came back, things just went right back into where they were before.

And that’s hard. It’s hard. I hate it whenever people say that teaching is a thankless profession, because I don’t think that that’s true.

I work with a lot of parents who tell me, “Thank you,” all the time. They are grateful. I think it’s just very, very easy to focus on all of the challenges that are out there because there are so many. When we thought that teaching couldn’t get any harder, COVID was like, “Watch out. Check out what I can do.”

And that for a lot of people was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. They were like, “Okay, I’m already barely surviving, but I can stick it out.” And then COVID happened and they were like, “I’m out. I’m done. I can’t. This is it.”

Dr. Cristi Ford (13:21):

It resonates. And I remember me talking to a colleague before about the new term, change management. We talk about the constant churn. And I think that the pandemic just threw some accelerant on that, and that there is no opportunity to be able to take a moment and reflect. And so I wonder from your perspective, as you talked about why burnout happens, do you think that constant churn and change, is that also a mitigating factor that you see?

Amber Harper (13:50):

100%. I’ve said it so many times. The only thing that’s constant in education is the constant changes. Changes in curriculum. We change our students each year. We might be forced to change grade levels. We might have a change in administration, a change in our expectations at school, changes in laws, changes in how we can…

My goodness, even lately, changes in what we’re allowed to talk to our students about or words we’re allowed or not allowed to say. It’s constant changes. And while change is good, there are a lot of changes happening that go against, again, the reason that we chose to be in education in the first place was to make an impact, and I think that that constant change is boxing a lot of people in a way that… And that’s another huge reason that goes along with that depersonalization.

Dr. Cristi Ford (14:48):

No, I would agree with that. As I hear you talk, I just think about the passion that teachers have. And I also think about many of the teachers I know are lifelong learners. They are passionate about learning something new. And so I’m wondering, as a teacher burnout coach, how have you seen there be a thoughtfulness around professional development, or how are you working with school systems or teachers? How does that work proactively to give some teachers strategies before they get where you were in 2015?

Amber Harper (15:23):

This is such a great question and please help me to know if I’m not answering this the way that you’re expecting, but I know that there is hope for teachers that are already in the profession because I’ve seen success.

I actually just interviewed a teacher who has gone through my program. She’s seen tremendous change in her life by making these even small little shifts in mindset or one little shift in how she’s managing her time. She’s starting to see those huge ripple effects that happen. But you have to want that change and you have to be willing to figure out how you can work within this system that you may not necessarily agree with everything that’s happening.

On the flip side of that, I really truly believe that we can better prepare our pre-service teachers to understand how challenging this profession is, instead of working on those 10 page lesson plans. I know back whenever I was in school, 2002 through 2006, I remember writing these ridiculous lesson plans.

I was not at all prepared to manage a classroom, especially a classroom in 2022 that is so different than a classroom my first year teaching back in 2007. And one big piece of that preparation is helping teachers to prepare their brain, to help them to become mentally strong because you will not last in this profession if you are not somebody who is mentally strong and willing to set boundaries and to do what is best for you in any given moment.

And I’m not talking in a selfish way. I’m talking in that ultimate, radical self-care to know where you stand and to be able to advocate for yourself. So I don’t know if that’s quite the… [inaudible 00:17:29].

Dr. Cristi Ford (17:28):

No, I think that’s spot on. I think it’s spot on. And I think if you would be kind enough to share a little bit about your personal journey a little bit more. What I am hopeful about is that while you talked about being burnt out in 2015, I think you used the term burned in 2021. Can you just share with the listeners, how did you have that full transformation process for yourself and what changed? And how did you frame thinking about coming back to the classroom very differently than you left it?

Amber Harper (18:04):

Oh my gosh, such a great question. I will try to do a shortened version of this because it really has been a marathon. It’s definitely not a sprint. And I know that what everybody would love is this magic pill to just take and all of your challenges are gone.

But I’ll share with you at the end what teaching looks like for me in 2022, that that is definitely not the case.

I taught in the same school district from 2007 through 2015, and from the very first year that I taught there, I was faced with a lot of challenges. And my first challenge that I dealt with for my first two years was a challenge with a very negative toxic work culture in my team that I was placed with.

I won’t really go deep into what happened there, but I will tell you that it really did make me question right away, “Gosh, is this profession for me? I don’t feel like I can talk about anything. I don’t fit in here. This is not the place for me.”

But then I stuck it out, and also I had our second daughter during that time, so that was a lot. Then I was though moved to second grade and I realized then the power of just changing grade levels, because it was some of the best teaching years of my life. We were friends. We hung out. We genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. I was like, “Oh, my gosh. Am I in the same building? What’s happening here?” And then I was moved to third grade unwillingly, by the way. Again, I was put into a really terrible position by my principal. It looked like I took somebody’s title away from them. I had no idea what was happening.

I actually had a parent tell me, “I’m so excited that you’re going to be teaching my daughter again next year.” And I was like, “Oh, what?”

Dr. Cristi Ford (19:53):

That was your announcement.

Amber Harper (19:55):

That was the announcement. And I was like, “Me too. I’m so excited.”

I was put in positions like that over and over and over again at this school, which as you know, that’s not leadership. I wanted to work with somebody that I felt like communicated with me. I always expect a leader who is reflective of myself as a teacher in my classroom. I want to work for a leader that my students would want to have in their classroom. Do you see what I’m saying? There’s that end ripple effect.

I always told principals, “Teach the way that you would want a teacher to lead their classroom. Lead me the way that you want me to lead my classroom.”

Fast forward, there were a lot of things happening in my personal life, some things that I didn’t deal with appropriately. There was drama happening now in third grade. I ended up being the team leader.

Things were great for a couple of years, and then things just really shifted in our team. And I still wore all of these things that continued to happen in my building and I knew that I had to do something.

And what was my first instinct? “I have to leave. Well, what am I going to do? What am I even good at? I’m just a teacher.” I had this cognitive dissonance where it’s like, “You don’t belong here, but where else do you belong?” It finally came to a head in fall of 2014 when I went to let my dog out of his kennel. He was a puppy. He was about four months old, and he had crapped all over the kennel.

And I lived two minutes away from the school and I only had 20 minutes. This is a very human experience. There’s nothing pretty about it. But that for me was the straw.

Dr. Cristi Ford (21:41):

The tipping point.

Amber Harper (21:42):

That was the tipping point.

When I got back to school, all of the teachers, of course, are conversing in the hallway before the kids come into recess. They all know my husband. My husband had worked in the same building for eight years. They thought he had died. This is how distraught I was. And I was so emotionally charged. I was sobbing. I was a mess. I had to quickly change my clothes. I don’t even think what I wore matched. I don’t even remember.

But imagine their underwhelm when I tell them why I was losing my mind like, “Oh, thank God. We thought Jeff died. Oh my goodness, we’re so glad he is okay. So you’re crying about what now?” But it was so much more than that.

And it was very embarrassing. I think about it now and I’m like, “Oh, my god.” They called my husband, one of the teachers, because we were friends. She’s like, “I’m really worried about Amber. She lost it today over your dog.” And it was just not inappropriate, but it was definitely not the appropriate way to react to something like that, and that moment was when I was like, I have got some serious work to do, so that is when I started to dive into personal development. And I read and listened to any book that I could about how to change your life.

I was very happy with my family. I was very lucky to be blessed with a fantastic family, but everything outside of that I felt like it was just swirling around me and I was just watching everything happen.

And I’ve heard a lot of teachers say that. And so that’s when I started to make some changes.

So I left that school, took a different position. That one didn’t work out. I ended up at a different district, burned out again because I didn’t feel like I mattered, and my time management was terrible and I was still learning. I was still trying to process all of these things that I could change in my life. And in 2016 I was invited to go to a Google conference in Franklin, Indiana, and I learned about becoming a Google trainer and I was like, “Oh, I want that. I want those badges. I want to inspire teachers the way that I’m being inspired right now. I want to stand on a stage and I want teachers to be going, “Yes, yes.”

I want to inspire them. How do I do that? I don’t know how to do that. So I did know that I wanted to become a Google-certified educator. So I knew that going home from this conference, but then I fell asleep. We stayed up way too late the night before, as teachers do because we love to have a good time. And I fell asleep on the way home and I woke up, and burned in teacher was in my mind. I got this rush of adrenaline and I was like, “Burnedteacher.com. I’m going to look it up. Does it exist?”

It didn’t. Because I was feeling 180 degrees different than I did going down. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t know any of these people. And that’s when I started to blog and started to tell my story. And it was very simple. It was just it using Google’s blog page.

That’s all I did. I started to write about the things I was learning, how I was implementing it into my life, how using Google tools with my kids was lighting me up. At that point it was about a lot of different things. But the fact is that I was sharing my story openly and I started to get replies from people, and I’m like, “Holy crap, people are really reading this.” I became a Google-certified trainer and I started to lead some workshops, and I was also continuing to blog about burnout.

And one day I was driving to school and I have the voice message still on my phone. I had read Matt Miller’s Ditch That Textbook book and Teach A Pirate. And they had these acronyms. Pirate is an acronym and ditches is an acronym. And I was like…

Dr. Cristi Ford (25:52):

Educators love a good acronym.

Amber Harper (25:54):

I know. It just simplifies everything. So, I’m like, “I have this recording and what if burned in was a process? What if it was an acronym? And I was like, “What if B was like, begin where you are and U is like understand you.”

I started to work through this and I was like, Oh my goodness, yes, I could teach about this thing that I’m doing here. I could teach about this here. I really started to build this into a process. It really did turn into an eight-step process organically that then I started to teach to other teachers.

And the first person that I taught it to was my roommate at this Google conference. She was wanting a change. She didn’t know what she wanted, she didn’t know what she needed. And I was like, “Hey, I got this thing I’m working on. Why don’t you let me practice on you?” And it was everything that we both needed.

It was everything I needed from 2008 through 2014. It was everything put into a simple format. That’s not easy by the way. And that’s why you may not see changes if you’re not ready to make those changes yourself because it does take work.

And before, I didn’t even know that there was work to be done. I just thought that this was it for me.

And I think that that’s a really big ticket here when we’re trying to help teachers is that we can let them know, you don’t have to settle for these beliefs. You don’t have to settle. And you know what? You don’t have to settle for this school that has shown you time again that they don’t value you. But this school over here could be completely different. [inaudible 00:27:36] Completely different, but you are worthy and you are capable of making changes, but it has to start with you first.

Dr. Cristi Ford (27:43):

I love that, Amber. And what I will say is it’s so relatable if you are in a classroom, in an elementary school. It’s relatable if you’re a faculty member in a higher education institution. And I think what I appreciate about you sharing your story is I resonate with several of my colleagues along my career who have felt burned out.

That intellectual curiosity you talked about, that spark that happened at the Google Conference, I really have seen such a transformation when teaching and learning, and technology and innovation have been done well, that there has been this intellectual curiosity that I find that my faculty or educator colleagues that I know start to be reinvigorated with the love of teaching again and having that opportunity. And so it was really great to hear that part as the little kindling that started this whole process for you when you talk about burned in. I love that.

Amber Harper (28:42):

Thank you. And the funny thing is, I was hearing you read my bio. I need to change it. I don’t do Google training anymore and that’s okay. I went through that season. It ignited me for a while. But one thing that happened through COVID is that schools learned Google by necessity, or they chose Microsoft. Whichever one they chose, they didn’t need me for that anymore.

And that was okay because that was no longer where I wanted to focus. I really wanted to focus on coaching teachers through the burned in process, and it was just a really natural transition. And then fast forward to me deciding in 2021 that I wanted to go back to the classroom is because I know myself and I am a really hard worker. And for the three years that I stayed home to do Google training full time and burned in teacher coaching full time, I worked my butt off every… I wrote a book. I started a podcast. I built a couple of courses. I traveled. I did all of these things, but I was so lonely, and I am an extrovert. I love being in a big group of people.

I also loved, “I took a personal day today.” I do love to have those days to myself, but multiple days, years on end, I was really lonely. And I love my dog, but he’s only going to be my companion to so far.

It was spring break of 2021. We were down in Florida at my brother’s. I went for a run. I can’t remember exactly what I was listening to, but I was like, “I need to go back. I need to go back. I miss it. I miss the kids. I miss chitchatting with teachers in the hallway. And I’m equipped. I know what to do when things get hard. And I’m ready. I want to go back.”

And I started to look and I knew specifically the district I wanted to go to. And I just started looking on the website and there was a kindergarten position open at the school that my husband used to be the principal at. And it’s interesting because when I left that second district, that’s now the building that my husband is a principal at and I teach in the building that he left to go to.

Dr. Cristi Ford (31:07):

Traded places.

Amber Harper (31:08):

Yeah, we really do. We follow each other all over the county. But I knew that I wanted to work for that principal. See this is where it’s like, “I chose this. I chose to go back to the classroom. I am responsible for my burnout. I’m responsible for my career.”

And I think one thing that I really lacked is I felt like a victim of my career back in 2014. I victimized myself. And it’s very easy to do that as a teacher because there’s so much red tape and there’s so many things that we’re told that we have to do versus what we can’t do.

And I now have the mental strength that I have never had before in my life to know what is best for me, what is best for my kids. And I do so in a respectful and a proactive way, and that is something that I never had before.

Dr. Cristi Ford (31:57):

No, I appreciate that. I think that you and I chatted before, and I think it’s so critical to point the agency and the locus of control that you’re talking about.

We are in no way demystifying or taking away from the structural inequalities that we know that happen in buildings and happen in school districts, and we know that those are still critical.

But I think what you’re offering is really what do you have control over today? What can you change today? This is your life and only you can be the hero of it, so how can you take on that ownership?

And so I’d love to ask you the question in terms of, as listeners are taking a moment to listen to us today and hear a little bit more about your background, what would you urge a teacher who may feel burned out to get to the point that they have to leave and take these three years and go through this transformation? What would be your call to action to that teacher today?

And then secondarily, having these experiences working also with administrators, are there things that you would say is a call to action for administrators to make sure the teachers are burned in and not burned out?

Amber Harper (33:10):

Yeah, absolutely.

So the number one thing I would tell a teacher who is struggling, and this is going to sound so simplistic, but it makes such a huge difference, it’s going to be a couple of things. Number one, “I want you to stop. The busyness, you have to just stop for a moment. You have to stop.” And I know that this is so important because it happened this summer during a conference when I was leading a breakout session.

I said, “Before we get started, we are going to take three really deep breaths.” And we did that together. We did the four square breathing. We did four in, hold it four, let it out for four, hold it for four. We did that three times, and there was all this chatter stuff and everybody was coming in. And after we did that, it was just silent.

I said, “Do this every day before your students walk in the door. Do it again during your lunchtime. Do it again at the end of the day.

Those mindful transitions are so important to your mental health, and it’s totally free and nobody has to know. You’re just taking a moment to breathe. And then a few minutes later, I overheard a teacher turn and talk to another teacher. She said, “I don’t even know the last time I took a deep breath. I don’t even know.”

So doing that first, you’re oxygenating your brain. You’re able to think more clearly. You’re able to have clarity on what your next move is.

And there are times where I take deep breaths and my teaching partner is like, “You’re okay?”

I’m like, “I’m good. I’m good. Just teach.”

The next thing is you’ve got to practice thought catching. So thought catching is a practice that, again, it seems simplistic, but it’s not easy because you have to start thinking about your thoughts, good old metacognition, really thinking about, “Are the stories that I’m telling myself every single day true?”

80% of the things that you are thinking today, you thought yesterday, and you’ll think again tomorrow, and 95% of them are negative.

So, we have to start catching those negative thoughts, and we have to start deciding whether or not they are true. And most of them are not by the way. And how we can reframe the things that we’re saying and how we can create rebuttals for ourselves. Because I’m telling you, I have a million negative thoughts a day, but I’m able to say, “Amber, we don’t do that. We are not going there. That is not serving you. It’s not serving your kids. It’s out of your control. Let it go.”

And then if there is something that crosses my mind that is negative and it is worth me spending some time on, I write it out. Especially in a profession full of women, we’ve got to get things out of our brain and put them on a piece of paper because I can blow something up and make it real big.

You know the story of my dog. We can make things so huge in our brains and it really is just something that maybe we just need to have a quick conversation about, or maybe it’s a small shift that we need to make in some area. Maybe we don’t know what to do, so we need to do a Google search, go to YouTube University. Whatever. No matter what that is for you. Everybody has negative thoughts and we are wired to have that negative bias. That’s what kept us alive for so many years. But that part of our brain also keeps us stuck. And now it’s shifting into your questions about principals. Principals are burning out too. I’m married to one.

I see how this job tolls on its teachers and its principals, and I think the best thing that a principal can do is to be really vulnerable with their staff and to say, “This is hard for me too.” And really, truly mean it. Don’t walk into a room full of teachers and say, “We’re in this together,” put your positive pants on and then leave the room. That’s very different than you saying, “Guys, I’m seeing your students that are coming to the office. I’m in your…”

Be visible. It’s part of this. Be there. Literally be there. That is the most simple thing you can do, is to show up in their classrooms outside of needing to do an observation. Truly show them that you’re there with them and that you are in the struggle with them. And if you don’t know the answer, tell them you don’t know, but that you’ll help them to find an answer together. Don’t just tell them that you’re in this together. Show them that you’re in this together.

Dr. Cristi Ford (38:03):

I think that’s really… Oh, go ahead.

Amber Harper (38:05):

No, I was just going to say, and that’s what we want for our kids. We don’t just come into our classrooms and say, “I’m here to teach you and I’m here to help you learn,” and we all make mistakes but then I’m on my high horse and I never get vulnerable and tell them, “I’m sorry,” or tell them, “I made a mistake back here,” or, “Hey, what can we do about this together?”

I have those kinds of conversations with my kindergartners all the time. Show your human element, is what teachers need most.

Dr. Cristi Ford (38:36):

So as you’re talking, I resonate with so much of what you’re saying. The first thing I will offer around the administrative piece, there was a great Harvard Business Review article called Empathy is Leadership, and so as you talk about those components, it reminds me of that piece.

And really, as you said, showing up to be human, showing up to be vulnerable, and showing up to be your authentic self. And so that for me, I think is such a critical call to action for principals, for administrators, for school district leaders. And then when you talked about the pieces around teachers, there are two pieces I want to plug a little bit here around the teaching and learning studio.

We’ve developed a master class called Mindset and Mindfulness, and part of that is teaching some of those practices that you talked about, Amber, really being able to get in and be intentional about mindfulness. And then when you talked about the other pieces around negative thinking, it reminds me of my work in psychology and thinking about anxiety.

So, in the anxiety framework, we know there is a lot of thinking. They call it thinking errors, and there are a lot of thinking errors that we create as a result of the anxiety that we’re feeling in our bodies and that we’re thinking. And so I think it’s so spot on that you’ve offered our listeners that framing, “Stop. Identify it. And if it is something that you’re not able to process and move through, write it down.” And there’s a whole approach in the anxiety framework model to be able to rectify those thinking errors. Because thinking errors are connected to our behaviors. And if we’re not clear about, like you talked about, many of them are not true. So how do we to really decouple those pieces and move those forward. I could talk to you about this stuff all day long.

But I do want to ask you as we’re wrapping up here, I want to know what’s next for you? What’s next for Burned In Teacher? Give us a sense of what’s happening new for you and where you’re headed?

Amber Harper (40:36):

So many things. So my goal is to work with as many teachers around the world as I possibly can, but I also want to do that in tandem with teaching in the classroom. I do not have a desire, and I can say this with full confidence, this is the first time in my career that I’m like, “Oh, God. How long do I have left,” or, “I just need to get out of here.”

This is the first time where I’m like, “No, I’m in this. I’m in this for a while.” I can’t say forever because I don’t know what the future holds, but my desire is not to leave the classroom for at least five to seven years. And if that would happen, it would have to be for a reason that was a really good one. It was a really good next step for me. And I think that being able to say that is a real luxury for me.

Dr. Cristi Ford (41:27):

That’s a win.

Amber Harper (41:28):

I feel like that’s a win for me because I’m one of those people that always wants to move the goal post.

And I’m really content now. Gosh, to say that, it makes me very proud of myself because I’ve had to work to understand what I need in my life to be a content person. I know what those things are now. I had no idea what I wanted back in 2014.

So with that being said, I do know that I want to reach as many teachers as I can. And because of that, and I’m working as a teacher full time, I’m launching my brand new refresh Burned in Teacher university course. And this is available to anybody anytime. I don’t open and close the cart like a lot of people do because I feel like that’s unfair for people who are struggling.

And if they hear this story and they say, I want that. I don’t want to leave the classroom yet. And I hear this so many times, “I don’t want to leave, but I feel like there’s no other option. How else do I manage this?” And so this course really does go a lot deeper than Hacking Teacher Burnout. I would love for every teacher to have a copy of Hacking Teacher Burnout in their hands.

I just got done interviewing somebody for my podcast who’s gone through this process that I think I already mentioned. She said, “Amber, I keep Hacking Teacher Burnout beside my bed every night. It just helps me to remember that somebody is there. Somebody knows what I’m going through. I’m not alone, and there is hope for me.” And it just gives me goosebumps and almost makes me emotional because that is what I needed so badly. That is what I needed so badly when I was struggling alone. And I didn’t feel like anybody understood me. They didn’t understand how I felt. I didn’t even know who this person was, who was looking at herself in the mirror.

And for her to say that to me today, I was like, “This is why I do this.”

And when I first started to tell people about Burned in teacher, they’re like, “What?” They’re trying to support me, but they don’t know how because they don’t understand. And over the years, it’s just really become very easy for me to verbally just express what it is and how it helps people. It makes something that is seemingly so hopeless. It gives people a path. And there’s not one right way to do it.

So I want to speak at more schools virtually, ideally so that I can be home with my family, but I can also reach teachers. And I really want to meet as many teachers as they possibly can where they are and help them to go where they are very confident where it is that they want to go. And for some teachers that is leaving the classroom, even for a couple of years. Maybe they have a bunch of littles at home and it is just not the right place for them right now, but it will be in a few years when their kids are older.

Just knowing that everything that we are in is a season and these seasons will pass, and then we will move on to another season. And I just want to reach as many people as I possibly can to help them know that this season does not have to be your forever reality.

Dr. Cristi Ford (44:38):

I love that Amber Harper. And I will say that you’re passionately exuding through your microphone, and so I hope our listeners are really taking advantage of your knowledge. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about something that you have not only understood professionally and personally, but that you’re helping to help other teachers around, and so we will keep an eye on you and keep an eye on burnedinteacher.com and the coursework.

And again, just thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

Amber Harper (45:09):

It is my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

Dr. Cristi Ford (45:12):

Absolutely.

You’ve been listening to Teach and Learn a podcast for Curious Educators. This episode was produced by D two L, a global learning innovation company, helping organizations reshape the future of education and work. To learn more about our solutions for both K-20 and corporate institutions, please visit www.d2l.com. You can also find us on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. And remember to hit that subscribe button so you can stay up to date with all new episodes.

Thanks for joining us and until next time, school’s out.

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